The true testament to a slow-burn thriller’s worth is never comprehended until its climax comes to a head and the credits roll. You’ll ask yourself, “Was the payoff worth the journey?” Were the previous events fulfilling enough to warrant such a sluggish pace, or are you still full of tedium and frustration brought on by an overbearing first few acts that can’t be saved by whatever third act twist a filmmaker reaches for? That’s what Karyn Kusama asks in her latest film, The Invitation, which unfortunately falls under the category of slow-burners that haphazardly meander along before finally hitting stride in the final thirty seconds or so of storytelling – an explosive moneyshot after an hour and a half’s worth of drawn-out, creepy dinner party suspense.
Matt Manfredi and Phil Hay script a story of suspense between friends, which starts with nothing but a simple invite. A group of old buddies meet up for a reunion in the form of a dinner party, but when the host starts showing signs of strange behavior, tensions start to boil as the true motivation for the night comes into question. But not everyone believes that something sinister is afoot. In fact, the only person who sees a problem with Eden’s (Tammy Blanchard) actions is her ex-husband Will (Logan Marshall-Green), which raises a red flag for every other guest. Is Will just that off-base, or is Eden buttering her friends up for a killer nightcap?
The disappointing fact is that Karyn Kusama is a talented filmmaker, but The Invitation drags along in an obvious manner for far too long. There’s a lurking sense of cultish behavior that permeates a safer sensibility of friendly ice-breakers, and while properly executed explorations into religiously-influenced groups of this nature are thought provoking (The Sacrament), a subtle veil of suspense never overtakes us. Will cracks the code almost instantaneously, and even though Eden’s cheery face throws everyone else for a loop, it’s almost like the inevitable is being delayed far longer than necessary. Pacing is definitely an issue that Kusama faces, and while the chaos she orchestrates delivers heavy, gut-wrenching blows, a simple ten-minute wrap-up can’t overcome an unfortunate lack of tension that fails to keep us on edge.
Another disappointing fact is that The Invitation is perversely dark, which would work on emotional levels if the story benefitted from dead children and broken marriages, but some of the weightier material deems itself unnecessary. Will’s deranged state is brought upon by an unfortunate accident that leaves him without a child and wife, but once the climax reaches volcanic levels of volatility, the sad familial atrocities are rendered completely unnecessary to the plot. If Will showed up to Eden’s party only as a friend, the proceeding actions would still carry out without a screenplay hitch. We’re beaten over the head with immense bouts of grief and unsettling loss, from suicide attempts to broken livelihoods, yet when all is said and done, we wonder if The Invitation‘s unshakable bleakness is needed in any sense.
There’s a commendably humanistic quality to most of Kusama’s party-goers though, and the dinner event itself feels like something any viewer might attend (if it were catered by a Top Chef). Most characters are just “normal” people, like you and I, which lends well to the inclusion of John Carroll Lynch and Lindsay Burdge as eccentric plants. Whether Jay Larson is playing up his character’s lovable schlubbiness or Marieh Delfino shows how uncomfortable she’s grown, the actors are able to hit on a curious uncertainty that leads to perfectly watchable performances.
But this humbleness doesn’t include Blanchard’s face-value masking and Michiel Huisman’s all-too-nice host, who do nothing to throw more curious minds off their scent. The Invitation doesn’t bother playing any cards close to the vest, especially when crafting characters who MIGHT be hiding something meaner. Something born from tragedy, that begs to explore the many ways people can react from being on the brink of complete and total loss. Spoiler alert: you probably know already.
The Invitation is a competently made thriller, but it’s just not my speed. There’s a wonderful “HOLY SHIT” moment at the end when the film’s dreary underbelly is flashed before our eyes, but getting there is more of a chore than I would have expected. If morose, invasive, slow-burn dramatics are your thing, then give Kusama’s latest a shot – just because one person didn’t find enjoyment, doesn’t mean you won’t too. This is an extremely temperamental film that’s going to divide audiences, and while I’m on one side, I can at least recognize that others might be waiting on-edge for the film’s mile-long fuse to run out. Different strokes for different folks, as they say.
The Invitation is a slow, SLOW burn that fails to find the winning ingredient that makes for a perfect dinner party thriller.